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Bisbee ‘17 is a ghost story, by way of a documentary about a 1917 deportation

Robert Greene’s unconventional documentary is a lyrical, haunting probe into the way history intertwines with the present.

Fernando Serrano in Bisbee ‘17
Fernando Serrano in Bisbee ’17.
Jarred Alterman/4th Row Films/Sundance Institute

The Bisbee ‘17 score sounds ripped from a ghost movie, spiky and glassy and a little dissonant. That sort of music (composed here by Keegan DeWitt) feels unusual for a documentary, but Bisbee ‘17 is no ordinary documentary, and the eerie, jagged notes underline that fact.

Directed by unconventional documentarian Robert Greene, Bisbee ‘17 is a fierce, lyrical probe into the soul of a town haunted by a history it would rather forget. It’s also an unsettling cipher for America, in a year when the ghosts of our past revealed themselves in frightening ways.

Bisbee 17 takes place during the centennial of a shocking, and mostly forgotten, historical event

Bisbee, Arizona, is situated 7 miles north of the Mexican border. Today it’s the home of mostly progressive-leaning artisans and eccentric old-timers, surrounded by shuttered copper mines that once made the town the richest in the state.

The town’s copper was in particularly high demand during World War I, which helps set up Bisbee’s strangely open secret. On July 12, 1917, 1,200 miners — the vast majority of whom were migrant workers from Mexico and Eastern Europe — and their supporters were rounded up at gunpoint and forced out of the town by a deputized posse of about 2,000 Bisbee citizens. Their crime? Striking against Phelps Dodge, the company that owned the mines, demanding fairer labor practices.

Phelps Dodge organized the roundup (or, more accurately, the illegal kidnapping); the miners were transported about 200 miles into New Mexico in cattle cars, unloaded without provisions, and warned against returning to Bisbee. Families and friendships were broken, but the company got its way, and Bisbee retained its identity as a mining town — at least until copper mining’s commercial prospects plummeted and the town went from being the richest town in Arizona to the poorest.

For Bisbee ‘17 (subtitled “A Story Told in Six Chapters”), Greene ventured to Bisbee for the centennial of the deportation. Mixing interviews with town residents, quiet shots of the town and the stunning landscape around it, and town-wide preparations to reenact the events, the film gently blows the dust of accumulated history off the past and, in the process, exposes some of the town’s still-tender wounds.

What’s beneath is startling. The deportation isn’t a talked-about part of Bisbee history — some lifelong residents seem unaware it ever happened. For others it’s part of their family history, or a story they heard from grandparents: one brother rounding up another, relatives proud of having been deputized, family members who were forced out and never heard from again.

Whether or not its residents talk about it, though, Bisbee is a town haunted by the ghosts of those who were kidnapped and pushed out, and those who did the kidnapping. As if to gently underline that fact, residents show us various places where ghosts are said to haunt the town — a hotel, a courtroom. History hangs heavily over Bisbee.

Bisbee 17 unearths how different stories about the past can coexist in one place

But there’s no single consensus, even in 2017, on whether the events should have even occurred. One of the most fascinating and startling parts of the film is that there are people in Bisbee who insist the company was right and that the miners should have been rounded up and deported in this way — that the “law of necessity” ought to have outweighed the rule of law, because it was necessary to preserving the town’s way of life.

And Bisbee 17 is about a centennial, so it’s not just about the past but also the present — a present that’s still grappling with the same issues. Words and phrases like “patriotism” and “loyal Americans” and “making our community safe,” tossed around as excuses for an event like the deportation, sound, in a film shot in the summer of 2017, like bruisingly familiar language for demarcating who gets to be called American and who doesn’t.

That familiarity is exacerbated by a number of people who claim they see validity on “both sides” of the story. There are people in Bisbee who see the deportation as a patriotic way of preserving “place and order” during a time of peak copper production for the war effort. Others see it as a thinly veiled way to rid the town of its nonwhite residents during a time of heightened xenophobia, even more than busting the striking miners.

The statistics do little to suggest otherwise; among the deported were 34 nationalities, about half of whom were Mexican or Eastern European, and about 90 percent of whom were born outside the US. Listening to people struggle to articulate the rationale surfaces how language and myth confound and obfuscate whatever it is we might call the “truth” of history.

So you could say Bisbee ’17 is remarkably “relevant,” though it never explicitly argues for its own connection to the present. Greene stays largely out of the way, but his craftsmanship is unmistakable. Bisbee 17 floats seamlessly between the real and the remembered, conversations and constructed scenes.

That may puzzle audiences expecting the kind of documentary that informs you in an ostensibly objective manner about historical events, or that guides you through what to feel; instead, Bisbee ’17 leaves generous space and requires us as viewers to connect the dots. We are conversing with the town’s residents, observing them as they don’t just give canned interviews but seem, at times, to be performing for us, like tour guides, even as they’re preparing a performance of the deportation for their own benefit.

Bisbee 17 probes the relationship between performance, truth, reality, and myth

The nuances in Bisbee 17 emerge in the space between performance and reality — a familiar space for Greene, who in earlier films like Actress and Kate Plays Christine is interested in the porous boundary between the two. Is there that much of a difference between pretending to be something and actually being it? What happens to us when we self-consciously inhabit and reenact things that are true — or that we wish were true? Is truth itself just a performance of memory?

Bisbee 17 is Greene’s grandest attempt thus far to explore that question and how it affects not just individuals but whole societies (and in this way, it shares DNA with other nonfiction films like Spettacolo and The Act of Killing). We watch individuals who participate in the reenactment change: One young man (Fernando Serrano) who plays a miner starts to reckon with his own personal history; others find their willingness to excuse what happened shifting when they live it, however temporarily. But we can feel something in the town shift too.

In many of the film’s frames, Greene leaves lots of space around the people who are talking and moving through the town. Sometimes we look at a wide shot for a long time before we realize there’s a small figure moving through it and toward us. For a movie preoccupied with notions of ghosts and hauntings, that feels significant — a way to make sure we know there’s more on the screen than we can see. There are presences haunting Bisbee.

And we know, watching, that this isn’t just about Bisbee. It’s about us, people who live in a country that has rarely been willing to face the specters that lurk among us. The ghosts of our collective past live right outside our frame of vision, but they haunt us just the same.

Bisbee ’17 premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is awaiting distribution.